It’s no exaggeration to say that the Nicholas Sparks novel era had the girlies in a death grip. Ryan Gosling’s performance in The Notebook unleashed an insatiable appetite for romance which paved the way for countless heartfelt book-to-screen adaptations. One such success story in this softly lit cinematic universe was Audrey Niffenegger's bestselling novel-turned-film The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Starring Rachel McAdams as a woman whose life is defined by her relationship with a time-jumping librarian, the story quickly became a hit for presenting a world where two star-crossed lovers have only one common enemy: time. Now, in 2022, the story has been adapted once again, this time for the small screen, with Game Of Thrones’ Rose Leslie leading the way.
Attempting to give the story a more contemporary feel, the eight-part HBO series (showing in the UK on NOW TV) begins with a Kardashians-style piece to camera in which Claire (Leslie) answers questions about her thoughts on love. Soon enough, we jump to another interview, this time with Claire’s husband, Henry (Theo James), who begins to explain the issues associated with spontaneous time travel. One of the most significant facts about this involuntary time-hopping (which he refers to as a 'disability') is that no matter what era he arrives in, he's stark naked.
Illustrating the point with a montage of Henry falling out of the sky with no clothes on, we learn that Claire struggles with his absence, with Henry's travels sometimes lasting for months at a time. But while Claire’s time with her husband may be limited in her current reality, it turns out she’s known him for most of her life. Unfortunately this isn’t an innocent tale of childhood sweethearts, instead conceiving a reality in which 6-year-old Claire first meets Henry when he’s middle-aged.
Is everybody equally confused and creeped out? Us too. Showing the story of their first encounter, we watch as a greying Henry appears in the woods by Claire’s house, projectile vomiting and naked. Interrupting her as she brushes her toy pony, Henry promises Claire that he’s a friend she can trust and asks her to retrieve him some clothes (sure!). Wanting to know more about his grown-up, time-travelling life, Claire asks for details about his wife, emphasising the extreme weirdness of the situation.
Although Claire is a child when she meets Henry for the first time, Henry doesn’t meet Claire until many years later. Working in a local library, 28-year-old Henry runs into Claire, age 20, who excitedly explains how she has known him for 14 years. Completely confused, Claire explains that future Henry has been visiting her in the meadow by her house for decades, none of which the current Henry has any knowledge of. This may seem like an appropriate start to their story but the moment is quickly sullied by the references to Claire's past encounters with old Henry.
Informing a bewildered young Henry about their future marriage, Claire is ecstatic at the prospect of the pair finally meeting at the right time in their lives. She puts her enthusiasm to start their romance right away, particularly physically, down to "waiting for him" for her entire life. Describing older him as a "perfect gentleman", Claire states that he provided "unbearable company throughout a very horny adolescence" by making her play board games, to which twentysomething Henry responds: "You were a child." (Right?)
This moment, pegged as some sort of romantic culmination of long-held desire, highlights the complete chaos of the timeline: Claire has had a crush on her future spouse since her teenage years, when he was a 30-40-year-old man. This unsettling fact is illustrated most clearly when Claire tells Henry that she grew up longing for him and "forming" herself around him. To hear how a young girl was essentially groomed into liking her husband while she removes her clothes is jarring to say the least.
This sentiment is amplified as the episodes go on, with a 16-year-old Claire outwardly flirting with a naked, 30+ Henry. Nothing comes of her crush on adult Henry but watching her infatuation feels wrong, particularly when she later tells an age-appropriate Henry how her libido was moulded around his older body. This, coupled with a wildly unnecessary story about self-pleasure, illustrates how sex and consent across the time travel genre is a murky topic indeed.
These blurry lines are something we've gotten used to seeing on screen, with characters casually using their time travel capabilities to manipulate or take advantage of their love interests. Often this will include taking advantage of multiple chances to present themselves (falsely) as a soulmate who knows everything about their partner emotionally and physically. This deception leads the unsuspecting party to believe they are wildly compatible while the time traveller hides the knowledge that they were rejected on their first try. These narratives show us a reality where relationships start with a lie and red flags can be erased by foresight and 'research'.
This plot device is in evidence in 2013’s About Time, when Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) goes back in time repeatedly to have sex with his future wife (Rachel McAdams) in order to improve on his first performance without her knowledge. Similarly, 2020’s Palm Springs raises questions about consent when Nyles (Andy Samberg) lies to Sarah (Cristin Milioti) about how many times she has had sex with him in his version of the time loop. The more you think about time travel movies and the foundations of the relationships within them, the bigger the grey area seems to get.
In The Time Traveler's Wife nothing happens physically between old Henry and young Claire but the presence of a middle-aged man throughout her childhood and adolescence clearly manipulates Claire’s thoughts about love and sex. In particular, Henry’s involvement during her formative years sees Claire seduced by the idea of a far-off future with an older man, which in turn makes her avoid age-appropriate experiences with her peers at school. On the one rare occasion where Claire does hang out with people her own age, the show alludes to the fact that she has had a distressing negative experience, presenting the idea that boys her own age aren't aware of right and wrong.
Though the series somewhat distracts its audience with continually shifting time periods, the ickiness at the centre of this love story can’t be ignored. While the addition of a new and charismatic cast, modern timelines and audience-friendly interview format brings the story into the present day, no matter how much you try to hide it, the principles of The Time Traveler’s Wife continue to leave audiences uneasy, begging the question: did we need a reboot at all?
The Time Traveler's Wife is streaming on NOW TV from Sunday 15th May